By Jake McAdams
"The innocence of the people was in the streets of Europe. The guilt was in the Cabinets."
The film, The Guns of August, used this quotation as a base for examining the causes of World War I, and then proceeded to list some of the battles and turmoil surrounding the war. If the purpose of this documentary which was released in 1964 and directed by Nathan Kroll was to educate the public about World War I, the producers were largely unsuccessful because they excluded necessary information and did not properly organize the information which they presented to appeal to the viewer.
The Guns of August is based upon Barbara W. Tuchman’s book with the same title. Both book and film tried to give an overview of the origin of World War I and then the documentary briefly explained some of the battles and strategies of the two opposing sides in the war. The Guns of August begins with the death and funeral procession of King Edward VII in May of 1910. Several of the diplomatic visits between the leaders of Europe were briefly explained, in particular, a crisis in Morocco which led to the strengthening of Germany's and the United Kingdom's military fleets. The presenters then discussed the invasion policies which the French and Germans were going to use against each other. The film briefly mentions a conflict that occurred in Serbia and then delves into the assassination of Austria's Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on a visit to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. All these actions finally threw Europe into a war which many leaders thought would be over in four to six weeks.
All the diplomatic appeals, correspondences, and military ultimatums that occurred within a month's time built tensions, until on July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary formally declared war on Serbia. The mobilization of Europe's military forces and the attack by Germany on Belgium and the complete and utter destruction which the huge German force inflicted onto the entire Belgium nation quickly followed. The Guns of August then discussed some of the major battles in France and Germany such as Tannenburg, “the miracle of the Marne”, Verdun, and the Battle of the Somme. The documentary lists some of the new-age war tactics and technology such as trench warfare, poison gas, machine guns, submarines, tanks, aerial warfare, and anti-aircraft weapons. The Russian Revolution is briefly mentioned as the cause of America's involvement in the war. The film concludes by telling of the German surrender on November 8, 1918, and the official Armistice Day on November 11.
If the above paragraph was very boring and mundane to read and follow, that is what the documentary was like. While one watches this film, although the war news reels are occasionally stirring, it was very hard to follow completely the information that was being presented. This documentary used facts in an almost bullet point format which continually jumped all across Europe usually in a time sequential order. The film makers did not try, however, to follow any kind of pattern that cultivated a feeling of natural flow, but rather presented it in a very matter-of-fact way that tended to bore and confuse the viewer. The actions which were presented during the film did not even explain what was discussed and achieved with some of the diplomatic visits; the script writers just said that there was a visit, and left it at that. I am sure that the producers of this film meant it to be very informative to the general public, but unless one has an uncanny ability to learn about such an overwhelming subject matter as the causes and execution of World War I by hearing very compact bullet points, one goes away more confused than he was prior to watching the film.
One example of insufficient information, further confusing the viewer, concerned the conflict in Morocco. The film stated that Morocco appealed to France for aid against Arab insurrections; therefore, in 1911 France sent an expeditionary force in response. The film then says that in response to France’s actions, Germany sent a warship to Morocco. Why did Germany send a warship to Morocco? Were they in an alliance with France or did the Kaiser send a warship to Morocco to counter France’s actions? The film does not explain this to the viewer. The presenters constantly leave unanswered questions about the information in the film which leaves the viewer in a state of complete confusion. Another example of the lack of given information and explanation is the Serbian conflict.
First of all, if the reader or viewer does not pay very close attention, he will completely miss the fact that there were two conflicts in the Balkans immediately following each other. Secondly, the documentary does not even mention that Austria-Hungary forced Serbia to give up Albania in the Second Balkan War or even why Austria-Hungary should care at all about what goes on in the Balkan states. Without this information, the viewer is completely left in the dark and utterly confused about why a Serbian terrorist would want to assassinate Austria’s Archduke. I had to consult an outside source to even get a brief overview of the contention between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. Should an informative film, meant to be viewed by the general, unscholarly public, have so many gaps in the information which it presents? No, it should not. In summary, The Guns of August is a poor film largely because it does not present enough needed information to explain to the viewer what actually happened.
A possible excuse for this absence of information and necessary explanation could be that when the film was produced and released, the viewers would have more background knowledge than viewers do today. I do not buy into this excuse though. This film was released in 1964 by Universal Studios, fifty years after the events discussed in the film actually happened. True, there still would have been many World War I veterans still alive and they would have told their children about the war, but there would still have been many individuals who did not know why the war had begun. For example, Desert Storm was fought less than twenty years ago. There are many young people today who do not know the specifics of that war and only have a faint idea about why we entered the war in the first place. The Guns of August was trying to explain to the public the specifics about why World
War I was started. With this having been one of the chief purposes for the film, I believe they did not achieve it. It is impossible to make a documentary that expresses strictly the facts and expects that the viewers will have sufficient background knowledge to completely understand World War I after having viewed this film.
Another reason why I do not think this is a plausible excuse is because the makers of this film, just as with all other films and pieces of literature, wanted to create a valuable contribution to society, one that would be valued and viewed not only in their own time but in future generations. Due to this simple reasoning, it is impossible to take the blame of creating such a deplorable, “educational” documentary away from the makers of The Guns of August. If they wanted their film to fully accomplish the purpose of educating the general public, they would have very readily put in details and explanations that would have made the information fit together better and make events less confusing to the viewer.
Although the producers did a terrible job at presenting their information, one very good aspect of this film, possibly the only one, was that the film makers used original film footage of the diplomats and the war itself. This quality alone gives the film credibility. One must commend the publishers for finding and using so much original footage. When you imagine the total destruction and carnage that the war caused, it is truly remarkable in and of itself that journalists and reporters were able to take such a new invention as the video camera and set it up in the field and capture war scenes, including scenes involving the use of poisonous gas. When we view war footage, sometimes it is easy for the viewer just to see the film and not realize that there was actually someone there in the trenches with the soldiers having to go through the same experiences that the combatants were going through. Add to this the reality of the destruction the war caused and it is incredible that there is any original footage actually left. It is common to see photographs and film footage of the destruction of a war after it happens such as Matthew Brady’s pictures of the American Civil War, but to see actual footage of the great destruction and the brute power of guns booming and grenades exploding and the horrors of war in real time: that is an outstanding feat, especially during the early twentieth century. Today we have become numb to the horrors and realities of war because of Hollywood and the many movies and television shows that we are bombarded with that try to reenact war. Sometimes we do not realize that in war these are real men, causing real destruction and devastation. These men are not going to come back to life when the director says cut and the towns that they demolished are not made of Styrofoam and cheap lumber; these are real men causing real destruction. We are very fortunate to have access to this footage that shows the actual carnage of war and the bravery of those who fought.
One important factor of the war that the presenters stated from the very beginning was that World War I was not fought because the people wanted to fight this war, but that it was instigated and carried out all because of a feud between Europe’s rulers. From the initial quotation I have given, we are able to see that this view has been acknowledged by outside parties. This statement does not put any of the responsibility of World War I on the citizens of Europe, but solely on the kings and other governing officials in Europe. Although we have proof that this concept was realized after the war, we also have evidence that this idea was expressed during the war, not only by civilians but by members of the warring armies. Siegfried Sassoon was a decorated British war hero who fought in several battles of World War I including the Battle of the Somme. He was also a renowned poet who voiced his concerns and feelings toward the war to many including his commanding officers. In a public letter to one of his commanding officers, Sassoon wrote "I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it." Sassoon continued: ‘I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defense and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.”
Sassoon’s statement expressed the idea that was held even by many of the embattling troops. This war was viewed increasingly as unnecessary, and what was thought of as a noble cause in 1914 soon turned into a show of brute force and futile imperialism. With this attitude thriving within the troops, it is very easy to understand why this war ended with an armistice and not a clear victory. When your armies have lost morale and belief in the cause which they are fighting for, your nation will not be able to continue fighting.
The Guns of August was a failed attempt at a commendable undertaking. This film has not been able to last throughout the years and does a poor job of educating the public about World War I. If the producers of this film had presented the necessary information and explanation needed to convey such a complex topic as World War I in a way more appealing and less confusing to the viewers, they would have had an outstanding documentary. The film makers had all the resources needed: factual information, original footage, and public appeal. But unfortunately, since the film makers did not properly utilize their resources, their film failed.
Margaret MacMillan: The War that ended Peace The Road to 1914; Published: July, 2014
Max Hastings: Catastrophe, 1914 Published: 2013